I am the mother of an eight-year-old with autism and my family has been in the “autism system” for seven years. If you do the math, you’ll figure out that we began around our child’s first birthday.
For the first two or three years, my husband and I focused solely on our son’s needs. We had reliable and experienced people supporting and advising us. They were the only ones who knew about our son. We didn’t even tell our families because we wanted to focus on our child. We didn’t know how to explain autism to anyone so we tried to avoid those conversations until we understood what we were talking about. And, we didn’t want any pressure put on us that may have questioned what we were doing. We only trusted the two people helping us.
We eventually told our family and friends and were surprised by the mostly positive reactions we received. We had been living in a self-imposed shell. For us, it was necessary at the time and I’m not saying I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing again.
However, I did not stop with telling our family and friends. I suddenly had a desire to seek out others who were like me. I wanted to know more, see what was out there.
I attended the Lanterman SCAT (Service Coordination and Advocacy Training) seminar. It was my first experience sitting in a room and listening to what someone else had to say about autism. A training program sponsored by Lanterman seemed like a natural step for us since out child had been a client there since day one.
I haven’t stopped attending conferences since.
That training was my initiation in becoming an advocate for my child. Conferences have changed everything for me; I am now a learner, a voice, and a participant in the very thing that makes my child a bit different. I have even participated on a parent panel and met hundreds of people just like me.
I try to attend conferences every few months, but sometimes I cannot because they tend to be a bit pricey for me. However, the one I went to most recently, sponsored by Autism NOW at the LAX Westin Hotel, fed us one lunch and one breakfast and provided drinks throughout the two days of the conference. Oh, and did I mention, the conference was FREE!
An alarming and disheartening realization was that the attendance on the second and third days of the conference was extremely low–barely half of what it was the first day! Was it the conference itself? I’m not sure. Maybe there were personal factors for these conference drop outs.
For example, the first day we were asked to be active participants. At first, I wasn’t sure about splitting into groups five different times in order to discuss various topics (and speak our answers into a microphone). Most conferences don’t have you participate quite so much; a typical conference simply asks you to sit and listen to the speakers. Did this put off people from attending the second day?
I hope not, because I got some valuable information from that first participatory day. By the fifth question session, I was pleased I had had the chance to meet and talk to so many people. It was a different experience, and isn’t that what an autism conference should be about–discussing, analyzing, and celebrating the differences in our world?
Am I saying every parent of a child with autism must attend a conference? No. Am I implying you may be a bad parent if you don’t? Absolutely not. We each approach our children and their distinct characteristics in different ways. The approach I take is no better than others’.
I am simply passing along my life changing experience of connecting, networking, asking questions, receiving feedback, making friends, and for a few brief hours, relaxing in an accepting atmosphere with like-minded people! I can talk about my child with ease at autism conferences, when normally initiating that kind of conversation engages the other person to tell me about their child. It just feels good and I recommend giving it a shot. Especially if the price tag is right!